Is it okay to wear the blouses? Artisan Direct profile: Cobán

As time passes with continued restrictions due to COVID-19, our rural artisan partners started to ask us if we could try to sell some of their independently-created products. With all physical stores shut and no digital means to sell on their own, it’s a really tough time in rural communities.

The Artisan Direct Pop-Up on our site was the result of these requests. This past Sunday, we started with a small listing of four blouses made by the weavers in San Juan Chamelco, Cobán. They are each handwoven, new, and so beautiful. But don’t worry, this is just the beginning – the shipment from this group included almost 50 pieces 😬

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With some of the weavers

While we will slowly be featuring other artisan groups, this Sunday’s web update will focus on handwoven blouses and dresses from this same group. (Updates are planned to go live every Sunday!)

I received a beautiful conscientious question about these pieces, which was “Is it okay to wear the blouses?” — now, if you’re not familiar with some of the tensions that exist in Guatemala related to non-Maya people wearing handwoven huipiles, this might sound like a ridiculous question. It’s a blouse. Of course it’s made to be worn.

And in this case, yes, these blouses are made and sold to be worn by anyone who would like to support the weavers. This is why:

  • The blouses made for sale by the organized group of weavers.
  • The weavers directly benefit from the sale of these items. They set their prices as a group.
  • The pieces are all new, and the cooperative keeps track of who wove which one, meaning that the original weaver is known and that the process is transparent.

With other textiles, this may not be the case because:

  • With used textiles, it can become very difficult or even impossible to pinpoint who made the piece, and how much that original weaver received for the sale of the piece.
  • Many backstrap-woven pieces, especially those with rich brocade, are made for weavers’ personal use or for a family member. They are not usually meant to become commercial items, but often weavers do decide to sell pieces for personal reasons, whether that be for wardrobe preferences or immediate need for cash. The worry is that textile middlemen may take advantage of emergency situations in rural communities, and not compensate the weavers adequately for the sale of used textiles.
  • There is a surge in products that feature Maya weaving symbols, but in print and other techniques that do not benefit weavers. These products are troublesome as there is no benefit to the weaving communities.

 

I really appreciated the question so much. I hope this clears up the complicated topic a little bit. It’s a difficult area to maneuver, and asking these questions is the first step.

 

The Weavers in Cobán

The weaving group in Cobán is comprised of 30+ weavers from a number of smaller communities around the city. They specialize in beautiful flowy cotton blouses in a variety of different weaves, with picbil being the most delicate and labor-intensive. Only a handful of master weavers from the group is able to perform this gorgeous weave.

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picbil loom weaving 2 web

The delicate picbil weave, traditionally using white on white for an elegant blouse. One huipil of three panels takes over a month of weave from start to finish, and in colder seasons the process is elongated as los temperatures make the threads stick together, making weaving very challenging.

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Backstrap weaving

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Herlinda weaves with concentration

Picbil loom

They’re starting to work with natural dyes from local plant sources, which is really exciting! Still more testing needs to be done to make sure colors are stable and replicable within reason.

Margarita in moutains small

 

Stay tuned for this Sunday’s store update on our Artisan Direct Pop-up page for the beautiful creations from these talented weavers.

How to weave on our Practice Backstrap Loom

Looking to learn a new crafty skill while at home these days? We’ve got the thing for you, then: learn how to weave on a simple backstrap loom.

These looms have been prepped with naturally-dyed cotton warp and weft by our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán. The design is already so pretty, there’s no need for complicated weaves – the most simple weave will make a beautiful wall-hanging with all the tools still attached.

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<Find our Practice Backstrap Loom Kit online>

To start, these are the contents of each kit. We currently have three naturally-dyed color variants available.

What's in a kit

And these are the parts of the simple backstrap loom:

Parts of a loomYou’ll see droplets of water in the above picture because I decided to starch the warp and iron before weaving. After the starching, I spent some time to separate the threads. After that, though, it keeps the fibers more neat and avoids fuzziness and clumping. It’s up to you if you would like to starch, it is an optional step.

Here are some simple videos filmed at home, following COVID-19 restrictions so not at all professional, but I figured better to just to it. I hope they are somewhat helpful and can get you started on your first backstrap loom.

To start, this one explains the parts of the loom:

 

See how I’ve attached the loom to a pole on my terrace in the following video. It should be attached higher than where you will sit – whether that’s in a chair or on the ground directly.

 

Once you’ve got your loom in place, you’re ready to start weaving:

 

For this simple loom, there are only two steps (yay!). They are demonstrated separately in the following two videos.

Learn Step 1, which is pulling the heddle and inserting the weft from right to left:

To check from the side if you’ve lifted the heddle or rod correctly, you can take a look like in the below picture. In the first picture, you can see that it’s not “right” – there are some threads that are going from above the rod to below the sword. So it’s INCORRECT:

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But in this one below, you can see that the sword is inserted neatly without messy threads, so you know it’s been done CORRECTLY:

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And then Step 2, using the shed rod and inserting the weft from left to right:

The rest is just repetition. Step 1, Step 2, Step 1, Step 2… until you’ve reached the point in the loom where it becomes difficult to pull up the heddle. I would suggest stopping there, and leaving all the tools attached to the loom, and hanging the piece on your wall as home decor. You’ll be able to tell your friends and family that you wove it, and hopefully those around you will also gain appreciation for the handwoven world.

Remember that it’s ok to make mistakes! You can always retrace your steps, cut the weft (NOT THE WARP), or my personal preference: just move on. It’s all part of the process, and you should be able to see in your work how you are improving. It’s kind of fun to remember how you once made simple mistakes – and learned from them.

So I must admit, I’ve never tried to explain the steps of backstrap weaving digitally like this. I’m not an expert. You likely have some questions. Please feel free to ask questions below in the comments so others can benefit from them too, or if you’d rather ask privately, shoot me an email at mari@kakawdesigns.com.

Happy weaving at home! Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

 

XOXO,

Mari

Are you in Guatemala? Join our textile fun, even just one workshop.

We are opening our creative textile workshops during Textile Travels  to those already in Guatemala! Come learn more about the textile traditions of the beautiful Maya country, and practice some of the techniques yourself. Get creative, have fun, exchange ideas to benefit artisans and participants alike.

These workshops also include home-cooked meals and local visits to experience authentic village life. Cultural exchange through shared passions in textiles.

Interested? Let me know! Email mari@kakawdesigns.com

 

Brocade backstrap weaving workshop2

Textile discovery embroidery class1

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Featured on The Maker Journal!

Take a look at this beautiful website full of narratives about artisan traditions and slow fashion practices around the world.  I love this online community feel of people who believe in the value of handmade beauties.

Our upcoming Textile Travels was featured!  Take a look at the whole piece here.

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I’ve found myself in a little pickle as the founder of Kakaw Designs, a small artisanmade brand based in Guatemala, and now also a master’s student in Sustainable Development in Europe.  It seems to me that conscious consumers are more and more focused on the environmental side of fashion, pushing for locally-made products and a general reduction in consumption.  While I am a big supporter of these movements and personally believe that More is not always Better, these trends lead me to wonder about the social and economic side effects for the small-scale producers that I’ve worked with for years now in Guatemala.

We are so excited for all the possibilities to come this summer.  Time to explore new creative ideas, together with our artisan partners.  Want to know more?  As always, just email me at: mari@kakawdesigns.com.

XOXO,

Mari

NEW! Rebozo del Lago

We’re so excited to announce our most luxurious weave – by that, we mean that the widest, thickest, coziest shawl we’ve made yet.  Of course, naturally-dyed with plants and using ikat techniques to make the patterns.

I was so inspired by the beautiful colors at Lake Atitlán, where our weavers are from.  That’s why this shawl is named after the magical place – “Rebozo del Lago” 💙

 

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Huge thanks to the very talented Devon Lach for these pictures taken in the San Francisco Bay.  I’m so thrilled she was able to capture the essence of this rebozo so perfectly – the cozy wrap around your shoulders with the light breeze of the ocean, walking barefoot comfortably on the beach.  It’s serene, earthy, ethical.  I love every bit of it.

We currently only have two Rebozos del Lago stocked, and the weavers are ready to make more, waiting for your order.

<<See our video about the dyeing and weaving processes>>

<<Order now>>

Plant Dye Experiments

It was so great to spend quality time with our partner weavers at Lake Atitlán.  It’s not always that we can afford to have some natural-dye experiment fun…. so this was a nice treat ❤️

I’m still going through the dyeing process pictures, so more on that coming soon.  For now… I’d love to share the results with you!

3 colors Mari

We dyed three Summer Cardigans, handwoven by weavers near Cobán.

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Cardigan 1: Dyed with Pericón and Sacatinta

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Cardigan 2: Dyed with Pericón and Sacatinta, taken out of bath before Cardigan #1

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Cardigan 3: Dyed with Chilca and Sacatinta

There are only 3 of these in the whole wide world, and they are looking for loving homes!  Email me at mari@kakawdesigns.com if interested.  $150 each, free shipping to US.

All 3 colros

XOXO,

Mari

 

Photos by the lovely Kelly from Cardamom Collective.

Why (another) Kickstarter?

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That’s right, we’ve done this before.  We started what is now Kakaw Designs three years ago with a little $2000 Kickstarter project.  It went well, and that’s how we’re here today.

So… Why another Kickstarter project, you ask?

Excellent question!  Here’s why:

As we’ve grown (in three years we’ve expanded from only boots to now shoes, bags, and accessories), we’ve also felt the effects when it comes to stocking and development of new designs.  Every new product takes trial and error to develop, and we now also maintain stock both in Guatemala and the US, for fast-delivery.  This is all great, but it just means more costs associated with growth.

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This all has made it more challenging to work with artisans from step 1, because it means more investment in trial and error.  But that’s the whole reason why we started Kakaw Designs – to work with artisans.  So we want to jump start the production of our newest products specifically focusing on work with women artisans (for weaving and embroidery) by bunching orders together on the Kickstarter platform.  This allows us to skip the stocking investments and go directly to sales – and that means that we can lower our prices.  It’s truly win-win for everyone.

Indigo Footloom Scarves, Kakaw Designs

Partner weavers Irma and Francisca

With that said, we’ve got so many goodies, make sure to take a look!  And even if you’re not looking to buy anything right now, you can help us by spreading the word.  So please share the project with your friends!  ☺️

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September Collaboration with Maya Traditions

Happy September!

We’re officially transitioning into Fall (for those of you who have all four seasons… here in Guatemala, we don’t :/ ), and that also means that Back to School is in the air.  I hope that is a positive feeling for you all.  It sure is for me – I LOVE FALL!

With that in mind, we’re so excited to announce our special collaboration this month with Maya Traditions!  Choose from one of four handwoven textile designs from Maya Traditions for our Original Boots and Quetzal Shoes, and we will donate 20% of the sales to support university students.  These are children of indigenous weavers who most likely are the first in their families to attend college.

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Check out these beautiful handwoven textiles, all on a traditional backstrap loom:

 

Cielo logo textAgua logo textTierra logo textMontaña logo text

Which color will you choose?  Here’s my favorite ❤️:

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XOXO,

 

Mari

Backstrap vs. Footloom

We started Kakaw Designs focused on supporting the backstrap weaving tradition.  It’s an amazing process, and we especially liked the idea of the women  being able to weave from home or anywhere else they want to – because the simple loom is easy to set up.  And each order is easy to divide among several women to weave separately.

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The process makes much more sense after watching this video:

 

But we’re getting into footloom scarves as well now.  Originally, I was hard-headed and thought that backstrap was the only way.  Turns out, I was so wrong.

We started with footloom because of a special request.  Cardamom Collective wanted to try them out and see what happened.  They came out so beautiful!  That’s when I knew I needed to seriously give footloom textiles a go.

Indigo Footloom Scarves, Kakaw Designs

Special order footloom scarves in Indigo

 

Why the original hesitance?  Well, because it’s not as flexible for the weavers to work with a footloom – the cooperative we work with has only one (which is completely sufficient), so the weavers would have to travel to where the loom is kept in order to weave.  And since not everyone is trained on how to use this bigger, more complicated loom, the work cannot be shared among many weavers as easily as its backstrap counterpart.  Oh, and it’s also more complicated to weave ikat designs, so footloom textile designs are more limited.

I’ve learned that the weavers are happy to take footloom orders.  Irma, left in the above photo, wove the very first batch with the help of other cooperative members for the dyeing, setting up the warp, and finishing the fringes with macrame.

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A footloom is bulkier, but much faster for weaving larger orders.

Right now, we’re reserving these scarves for wholesale orders only.  We’re really loving working on special orders, so if you’d like to collaborate, let us know!  There are so many naturally-dyed colors to choose from… I’d be happy to share them with you.  Send me a note at mari@kakawdesigns.com!

We’ll continue working with the weavers on backstrap textiles too.  So we’re not replacing one thing with the other – we’re just increasing options!

 

XOXO,

Mari